Cuban Nuances in Tampa’s New Generation of Restaurants

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Ulele restaurant

Senor Castro may have left this world, but the intrigue and influence of the Cuban culture is still alive and well in Tampa, a historic Cuban cigar-making town since the 1880s. Ybor City is the Cuban foodie epicenter with such historic, landmark restaurants as the original Columbia Restaurant, La Tropicana, Carmine’s, and La Segunda Central Bakery.

But Cubano foodways are not confined to Tampa’s Latin district. Cuba and its Spanish abuela insinuate themselves into most menus, even the newest, finest, and most progressive. Besides the ubiquitous Cuban sandwich that everyone claims bragging rights to, you’ll see and taste the influence in dishes from ramen to ice cream.

I was recently engaged in a mission to sample and write about six of Tampa’s most up-and-coming restaurants. There I found delightful ways that Cuban cuisine had purposely or unknowingly creeped into the chef’s head.

In the case of Ichicoro Ramen, the fusion is intentional. The roast pork asado in its Tonkotsu ramen bowl takes cues from Cuban pork mojo. If that’s not evident enough, consider the CuBaoNo – a not-so-subtle nod to the Cuban sandwich in an Asian bun. “This is Tampa,” says manager Eric. “Our Asian fusion has to incorporate that tradition.”

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Tonkotsu ramen

Oxford Exchange, just off downtown Tampa near the university, may emulate a British club, but there’s jolty Spanish cortado (similar to café con leche) beside sthe tea sommelier’s menu.

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Coffee at Oxford Exchange

It was less of a surprise to find tostones – albeit breadfruit tostones rather than plantain – at Seminole Heights’ darling Rooster & the Till. Considering that Chef Farrell Alvarez has Colombian roots, Latin influence is expected. It came with the crisp chicken thigh and yuzu habanero kosho the night I dined.

Also no big surprise at Ulele, one of the latest brainchildren from Columbia Restaurant dynasty kingpin Richard Gonzart. Although the culinary concept is defined as native American, the Naviaera Espresso Chocolate Swirl Ice Cream uses a coffee blend straight from Ybor City.

A native Tampan, Chef Jeannie Pierola has reached semifinalist status four times in the James Beard competition and was recently a guest chef at the Beard House. Her latest edison: food+drink lab near downtown draws on influences from here to Cyprus. The paella negra on the dinner menu the day I visited draws on strong Spanish tradition with a few of Chef Jeannie’s trademark twists such as squid ink rice, saffron uni foam, and piquillo pepper jam.

Chef Greg Baker at Fodder & Shine had me stumped. He professes strict Southern cuisine (with his own interpretations), and whereas I expected Florida Cuban influence to show up, it took a while to find it. There it is! On the Cornmeal Cake Sandwich, topped with killer collard greens, tomato, green pepper, scallion, and cayenne vinegar slaw. And served on – tada! La Segunda Cuban bread.

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